Atlantic County shows state how to help opioid-addicted inmates

There’s a one of a kind program being tested to treat opioid addiction among inmates in county jails and it’s already being hailed as a leading example of how to combat the opioid epidemic that has devastated New Jersey communities. Correspondent Michael Hill reports on the medication-assisted treatment being used to curb New Jersey’s Drug Addiction Crisis.

A heartbreaking heroin habit was broken when a jail journey introduced her to a new program last year.

“My life is really good right now, really good, and I owe it to the program,” said a client, who prefers not to be named.

In July 2017, the John Brooks Recovery Center in Pleasantville launched medication-assisted treatment to offer methadone and counseling to the high number of opioid-addicted inmates of the Atlantic County Jail and linking them to help when they leave. Recovery Center CEO Alan Oberman says it’s the first program of its kind in the state.

“The overall goal of that really is to avoid overdose,” said Oberman.

Federal statistics show an opioid overdose is 120 times more likely to kill men and women released from incarceration than the general population.

“At this point, of the people we’ve been able to track, and there’s been close to 300 people in the last year that have gone through the program, we have not had any overdoses,” said Oberman.

Oberman says methadone takes over the body’s receptor sites making it hard to overdose on heroin. That’s why his mobile methadone program has found a huge clientele on the streets of Atlantic City. Leftover funds thanks to Medicaid expansion led the center to drive its bus where it had never gone before.

Every day, the bus of the John Brooks Recovery Center goes to the Atlantic County Jail to dispense methadone to the inmates there who are in recovery.

“They bring the inmates to the bus and we dispense methadone to them,” Oberman said. “For a lot of the people we’ve solved the problem of being on methadone and then having that stopped.”

New Jersey offers medication-assisted treatment behind bars as well, estimated that 80 percent of state inmates with addiction issues were under the influence when they committed their crimes. Without any treatment, 75 percent relapse within three months.

“We’re back at square one. If you’re not addressing the root cause, if you’re not bringing compassion and understanding and evidence-based treatment into the criminal justice system, you get a vicious cycle,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal.

At a roundtable, Elnahal ran through a list of statistics showing high numbers of those arrested, imprisoned and paroled opting for medication-assisted treatment and staying in treatment.

“Again, speaks to the unique value of medication-assisted treatment when you combine it with behavioral therapy and other social supports, the results are staggering,” he said.

Atlantic County leaders are urging their counterparts across the state to replicate their mobile model, acknowledging it took a huge buy-in from the county to get it done.

“Recent research proves that an opioid afflicted individual is not a free-willed criminal. It takes away your free will just like emphysema takes away your oxygen,” said Frank Formica, chair of the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders.

The program has so much support here, the warden is putting a dispensing station in the jail. Atlantic County leaders say they’re inspired by the results — reformed lives in recovery.

“Being in jail and coming out on methadone, was probably the best thing I ever did. It definitely saved my life,” said one man.